No business is escaping the tentacles of technology. The supply chain industry is skilled at adapting its labour force to the pounding pace of change that technology brings, perhaps on a greater scale than any other business niche. However, artificial intelligence (AI) is a completely different ballgame.
As our supply chains have become increasingly complex and our customer expectations increasingly demanding, we haven’t had a choice but to turn to technology. Our responsiveness is central to our success, and central to our responsiveness is industry-leading technology. This now means AI.
With AI comes machine learning, complex analytics which make decisions increasingly powerful, and we have the robotics to use it. We’re able to utilise these immense ‘tools’ to our advantage, particularly in the realms of inventory management, supply chain planning and customer order management – all with the aim of making us leaner, more responsive, and of course, more profitable.
However, this latest use of technology radically transforms the skills needed in our supply chain workforce. We listen to the headlines of obsolete labour forces with impending doom. Yet all this does is distract from the fact that, far from our human workforce becoming the next dinosaur, what we’re seeing is an evolution of roles.
Debunking the Myth: Our Labour Force is Changing
A new release from Paul Daughterty and H. James Wilson, entitled Human + Machine, sets about rewriting the headlines. Their fundamental premise is that AI isn’t replacing people. However, they do assert that AI (and other technology) can only work effectively in conjunction with the human resource. Humans always have been central to the supply chain, and they will continue to be.
What’s important here is to stop pitting humans and machines against each other as much of the literature to date does. Instead, we need to adopt a different approach whereby both humans and machines are seen for their own valuable contribution, but that the sum of their collaboration is greater than their individuality. By combining the power of machine and human, we achieve something even more powerful than either alone. This is how supply chains will grow their success in the coming years.
To capitalise on this, we do however need to recognise that the skills needed in our workforce are developing and shifting. Daugherty and Wilson identify three key roles that are emerging from the advent of AI in supply chains:
- Trainers: These aren’t the delegate leaders of the conference room, but instead machine trainers. Their role is to improve the functionality of AI using the ‘human’ element, for example refining natural language processors. Their role is about reducing AI’s errors which come about precisely because they aren’t human.
- Explainers: These roles are the mathematical whizzes who are capable of understanding and interpreting algorithms in order to create solid foundations for decision-making. Without explainers then AI is confusing, they bring transparency and accountability.
- Sustainers: These are the elements of the workforce who are tasked with managing the risk of reinforced bias, a potential black hole of machine learning. They are also responsible for ensuring the AI keeps working on its goal and ethical lines aren’t crossed.
AI, when teamed with the right individuals, enables advanced analytics which empower strategy. Ultimately, we should eliminate time wasted in reactivity, and shift our focus to planning. Data scientists and engineers are moulding into one remit. These, at the moment, are unique individuals who are the future of supply chain strength.
Looking to Tomorrow’s Workforce
This means we cannot escape the fact we need to take a fresh look at the skills we are developing within our own business, and also where we can recruit from for the future. We need to adjust, and specifically the roles we undertake need to adjust, in order to use AI to our advantage in the future. If you don’t tackle this problem head-on then you’ll be picking up the crumbs of talent in the not too distant future.
There’s no escaping the enormity of this task. It’s easier, for now, to continue sticking to our previously defined roles. However, this won’t work as a long-term strategy for growth and success. We need to look at the labour force we have now, the capabilities of AI both today and tomorrow, and begin re-skilling people. The primary goal is about adding value. We cannot simply recruit these skills in; we need to grow them from the ground level up. They need to develop as the technology does.
How to Get the Right AI Workforce
Looking in more detail at the developments AI brings, we need to take multiple approaches. As well as developing our talent within, as explained above, we also need to:
- Look beyond the supply chain: The talent we need, particularly in the guise of data scientists, doesn’t currently sit neatly within the industry. Instead, we need to look at external recruitment from different industries where technology has been developed and used in a way that enables us to benefit from their skills.
- Consider the tasks: AI is virtually unlimited in its capabilities and it is impossible to adopt it across the board in one fell swoop. Instead, prioritise where you can combine AI with human capability to enhance decision making. Then focus on drawing your workforce’s skills in line with the highest value AI initiatives.
- Combine AI and existing technology: Don’t write-off your existing technology as obsolete without first considering how AI can be integrated with it. Use your workforce and their knowledge of your existing technology to identify where AI can be used with that technology to learn.
People Remain the Future of the Supply Chain
In the past, we knew whole-heartedly that people were the most important part of a successful supply chain. Then came the advent of technology and humans and machines rubbed along, both wary and distinct from the other. Now, sustainable and efficient supply chains are about collaboration between the capabilities of machines and the skills of the labour force. Work on this collaboration and you’ll be in the position of maximising on both machine and people power.